Paisley’s exclusivist nationalism lives on in Trump and Brexit

God’s chosen people asserted right to govern settled lands from Ulster to US

The year 1968 is most associated with youthful activism on the left. From Prague to Paris, from Chicago to Derry, people demanded a more egalitarian society. But it was an equally significant year for those on the right who advocated exclusivist forms of nationalism that resonate today in the politics of Trumpism and Brexit.

The conservatives’ 1968 was just as global as the left’s. In 1968, Richard Nixon won an election speaking for a “silent majority” of patriotic white Americans. British MP Enoch Powell warned that “rivers of blood” would flow if Britain did not keep out non-white migrants. The charismatic Belfast minister Ian Paisley resisted efforts to extend full citizenship rights to Catholics in Northern Ireland.

During a five-week stay in 1968, he visited 23 churches in 19 states all over the US, though mostly in the Sunbelt region where conservative politics were strongest

Paisley fostered close ties with American white supremacists. His newspaper, the Protestant Telegraph, frequently reproduced the views of American opponents of civil rights. For example, it published a scathing attack on Martin Luther King jnr, following his assassination in April 1968. American minister Bob Spencer claimed that King had "loaded the gun of his own destruction by making himself the symbol of resistance to law and order".

In March 1968, Paisley had preached to Spencer’s congregation in Huntsville, Alabama, and was made a “freeman” of the city. Paisley was on his third North American speaking tour. During a five-week stay in 1968, he visited 23 churches in 19 states all over the US, though mostly in the Sunbelt region where conservative politics were strongest. Paisley’s tour was sponsored by Bob Jones University, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1967. The racially segregated university was on the verge of a 13-year struggle to retain its tax-free status while continuing to exclude black students.


White rule

Paisley’s ties to American conservatives were initially religious in nature. He shared with Spencer, Jones and others a fundamentalist belief in the literal truth of the Bible and an aversion to ecumenical liberalism. For Paisley and his American allies, such religious views were inherently political. Believing they were God’s chosen people, they asserted the right of Anglo-Saxon Protestants to govern the lands they had once settled from Ulster to the United States. They even defended white rule in Rhodesia and South Africa.

Only the most ardent white supremacists would denounce Martin Luther King jnr today. But the legacy of the conservatives' 1968 persists

Paisley’s connections to American segregationists acquired a new relevance by 1968, when Ulster civil rights activists prominently adopted the tactics and iconography of the African-American freedom struggle. Perhaps the only point on which Paisley agreed with the radical young civil rights activist Bernadette Devlin was that the Northern Irish civil rights movement was analogous to that of radical African Americans. But to Paisley both movements represented not social justice but social disorder.

Readers of the Protestant Telegraph's many denunciations of the African-American civil rights movement no doubt concluded that the civil rights movement in their own country, which adopted similar tactics of non-violent resistance, was a radical conspiracy that intended to wreak violent disorder. Bob Jones jnr, for example, wrote in the Telegraph in 1969, "Most of the leaders in. . . the so-called civil rights struggle . . . are evil men and their appeal is to the lowest instinct in human nature. They stir up strife and seek to destroy the country by holding out a promise of undeserved and unearned benefits."

Ardent supremacists

Unlike the left, which celebrates the legacy of egalitarian struggle associated with 1968, the right would rather its role in resisting equality be forgotten. Only the most ardent white supremacists would denounce King today. But the legacy of the conservatives’ 1968 persists.

To his credit, Ian Paisley agreed in 2007 to serve as first minister in a power-sharing arrangement with Sinn Féin. But the legacy of Paisley’s right-wing ideas resonates in the support given to Brexit by the political party he founded, the DUP. Brexiteers appeal to an exclusivist nationalism in their concern for protecting Britain from migrants who supposedly threaten Britain’s racial character.

One of the DUP’s leading Brexiteers is Ian Paisley jnr, who assumed his father’s seat in the British House of Commons in 2010. In 2018, Paisley jnr retweeted an Islamophobic tweet by the British far-right celebrity Katie Hopkins. He brags that Donald Trump admired his father and dubbed him a “political legend”. The exclusivist nationalism that Ian Paisley advocated in 1968 lives on in the age of Trump and Brexit.

Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott associate professor of US history at Trinity College Dublin